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How to Be an Ethical Leader: 4 Tips for Success



As a manager, there is a clear difference between being just a boss and being a leader. Where a boss orders, a leader guides; a boss manages, a leader inspires. The difference lies in how you make your employees feel and how you view your relationship with them. A good leader sees it as their responsibility to inspire, guide, and nurture their employees to help them improve; they lead by example.

“In today’s transparent social-media-driven world, senior executives, especially those with a high profile, will be tested and called to task over their morals and ethics in how they do business,” said Shane Green, author of Culture Hacker (Wiley, 2017). “This used to be more focused on business practices but is now shifting [to] leadership practices. Businesses, and their leaders, are under a microscope. How they act and interact with those around them professionally will have a significant impact on their ability to attract new talent and, ultimately, their bottom lines.” 

Ethical leadership is defined as “leadership that is directed by respect for ethical beliefs and values and for the dignity and rights of others.” It is mainly concerned with moral development and virtuous behavior. 

Or, as Heather R. Younger, founder of Customer Fanatix, put it, “an ethical leader is someone who lives and dies for integrity. Doing the right thing, even when it hurts, is the ethical leader’s mantra.” 

And while this all may sound lofty, it’s more attainable than you might think. Here’s how to become an ethical leader. 

Define and align your values.

Consider the morals you were raised with: Treat others how you want to be treated, always say “thank you,” help those who are struggling, etc. But as you grow, and as society progresses, conventions change, often causing values to shift.

“This is the biggest challenge ethics face in our culture and at work and is the biggest challenge ethical leadership faces,” said Matthew Kelly, founder and CEO of FLOYD Consulting and author of The Culture Solution (Blue Sparrow Books, 2019). “What used to be universally accepted as good and true, right and just, is now up for considerable debate. This environment of relativism makes it very difficult for values-based leaders.”

Kelly added that to find success in ethical leadership, demonstrate how adhering to specific values benefits the mission of the organization.

“Culture is not a collection of personal preferences,” he said. “Mission is king. When that ceases to be true, an organization has begun its journey toward the mediocre middle.”

Ask yourself what matters to you as an individual and then align that with your priorities as a leader. Defining your values not only expresses your authenticity, it encourages your team to do the same, creating a shared vision for all workers.

Hire people with similar values.

While your values don’t need to be identical with those of your workers, you should be able to establish common ground with them. This often starts with the hiring process and is maintained through a vision statement.

“I do not believe that every person is a fit for every company, and that is OK,” said Green. “Companies need to do a better job ensuring they find people who are aligned with their values rather than just hiring for experience.”

In fact, Kelly believes it’s valuable to hire employees who have different experiences and perspectives, because they each offer their own solutions to challenges.

“But when it comes to values, I think having and hiring people who share your values is critical,” Kelly added. “Nobody wants to work for somebody who doesn’t share their values … Without mutual respect, it is very difficult to form a dynamic team, and most people find it very difficult to respect someone who doesn’t share their values.”

Promote open communication.

Every employee is different, even if they share similarities. With each decision you make, be transparent and encourage feedback from your team. This helps you become a better leader and helps your workers feel more confident in sharing their ideas or concerns.

“I believe that one of the important responsibilities for the modern company is to create an environment where open communication is encouraged and that, more importantly, people are listened to,” said Green. “We are seeing a lot of employees calling on their companies to change policies, drop customers or take a stand on current issues. Companies cannot bend to every employee’s demand, but what they do need to start executing is creating forums where employees can raise their viewpoints, feel they are listened to and receive follow-up explaining why certain things can or cannot happen.”

Gathering feedback from your team helps you improve as a leader and propels your business forward.

“Management is all about the people,” said Alain Gazaui, CEO of inteliKINECT. “Understanding where they come from is crucial.”

Beware of bias.

As humans, many of us have beliefs, subconscious or otherwise, that are outdated or erroneous. No leader wants to admit to their flaws, but not practicing self-awareness can lead to detrimental consequences.

“Everyone has bias, but for the longest time, you were not called out on it because you were never really challenged,” said Green. “Now that the workforce is more diverse … some unexposed biases are being called out. Managers need to … look at themselves and be honest that they do, in fact, have biases that may impinge on another person feeling comfortable at work.”

If you are an open-minded leader, you will build and maintain better relationships with your workers.

Lead by example.

To build an ethical company, you must start from the top down. Your employees will see your behavior, choices, and values and will adopt them in their own practices.

“To effectively lead, the ethical leader walks the line he or she wants others to follow,” said Younger. “Leading by example is the best way to ensure an ethical business.”

It instills respect and lets your employees see that you truly believe in them and trust them to work.

Find your role models.

“There are many leaders throughout history,” said Mike Sheety, director of ThatShirt. “Do a little research of good, powerful leaders and try to identify what they do [well]. Then implement it into your own leadership style.” 

Care for yourself so you are able to care for others.

You cannot pour from an empty cup, as the saying goes.

“Having a calm and capable demeanor is the foundation for strong leadership,” said Christine Matzen, founder of Oak Street Strategies. “This can be accomplished through making sure that you, as a leader, are focused on meeting your own needs [like] sleep, nutrition, [and] true connection with loved ones.”

Matzen said that devoting time to self-care can seem simple, but, ultimately, it’s critical in supporting your capabilities as a leader.

“The leader that is happy and content in life wants happiness and contentment for those they lead,” she said.



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